John of Damascus was an Arab Christian monk, apologist, and prolific writer. Today, Stephen Nichols introduces us to this significant figure in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
Welcome back to another episode of 5 Minutes in Church History. On this episode, we are talking about John of Damascus. Now we know Damascus today. It is the capital city of Syria, a largely Muslim city and a largely Muslim country. In Bible times, we find the first reference to Damascus back in Genesis fourteen. And then there’s the book of Acts, Acts chapter nine specifically, and Paul’s visit there with his vision on the road to Damascus, his conversion in that city, and then his rather dramatic exit at night in a basket over the wall. So, we know all about Damascus, but who is John of Damascus? Well, he was born in that city in either the year 675 or the year 676, and we think he died in the year 749 and likely in a monastery near Jerusalem. He is a significant figure in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
In 635 before John’s birth, Damascus came under Muslim rule. And John’s grandfather and father were both Arab Christians who held various roles in that Muslim government, and John apparently followed in their footsteps. He had been privately educated by tutors. He knew Arabic and Greek. He would’ve had what we would call today a classical education. And he started off his life as a civil servant. But sometime in the first decade of the eighth century, right around the year 705 or 706, it appears that John left behind that civil service and entered the monastery and was ordained. And from there, he left his mark. We can say three things of note regarding John of Damascus and his legacy. First, he wrote what would become a major and longstanding textbook on theology for the Greek or Eastern Orthodox tradition. This book was the standard text for centuries. It was called, The Fountain of Knowledge. Fontes, Latin for fountain, means in this context, “Source.” So, this is the source of knowledge. It has three parts. First, he entitled philosophical headings: “It’s about logic,” “Aristotelian logic,” and good old classical “Theism.” It is the foundation for good theological thinking. The second part, he entitled Concerning Heresies,” and he goes through all those heresies from the early church, but he adds a lengthy discussion at the very end of what he calls the “Ishmaelite Heresy.” And that, of course is Islam. This is one of the first apologetic works against Islam.
These pages in part two of John’s book, and then we get to part three. It was entitled “An Exact” or “An Accurate Exposition of the Orthodox Faith.” This borrows on the church fathers and borrows on the early creeds and both the baptismal creeds like the Apostles Creed and the confessional creeds and the material that came out of that. And this part is basically one of the early, one of the first systematic theologies. So, it is a systematic theology. This book has the foundation of logic and clear thinking that it moves on to look at all the bad approaches to theology and the missteps by looking at the heresies and then sets forth that ortho, which you know means straight, that straight path of thinking. So that’s his first legacy. His second, that in addition to that book, he wrote many poems, letters, and books on a whole range of subjects. So quite the literary output for John of Damascus.
And then thirdly, finally, he's a major figure in what we call the iconoclast controversy. This relates to two things, the making of religious images or icons and then the use of those images in worship. John actually defended the making of icons, especially related to Jesus, arguing that when Jesus took on flesh, the incarnation, the commandment of graven images of the divine being did not apply. John wrote this in three lengthy treatises against the decrying of holy images. Icons would become a significant part of Eastern Orthodox churches and worship from then on, as well as in the Roman Catholic tradition. So Damascus, that ancient and important city, and John thereof, an ancient and important figure in the Eastern Orthodox Church. That's John of Damascus, and I'm Steve Nichols and thanks for joining us for 5 Minutes in Church History.